The wife of our old friend J.B. has recently updated his Facebook status to “dead,” and although you’re unlikely to have ever heard of him we think his passing is worth noting. J.B. was one of those American boys who went off to fight a war in Vietnam and never really came back, and between his rough and rowdy ways and his exquisitely sensitive soul he was something of a local legend around here, and he was another small but important piece of a more ruggedly individualistic America that seems to be slipping away.
It took years of beery and heartfelt conversations before we found out that his name was actually Gerald Brown. Even in the tough south side neighborhood where he grew up no one would dare call him by such an inappropriately refined moniker as “Gerald,” however, although he would tolerate the less pretentious “Jerry” from a select group of childhood chums, and most of the rest of us acceded to his preference for J.B., which somehow seemed most apt for such an colorfully abbreviated character. To an even more select group of friends that he served with in Vietnam he was “Rap” Brown, which had nothing do with the black nationalist leader H. “Rap” Brown, whom our south side white boy friend hadn’t even heard of at the time, and instead was earned by how well he “rapped” on the radio when calling in an airstrike. It took many more years of beery and heartfelt conversations before he divulged that to us, though, and even then we were warned to keep calling him J.B.
Those conversations started when he was owner of The Spot Recreation Center, a notorious dive that just happened to be located exactly halfway between the newspaper where we toiled and the cheap apartment where we resided. The Spot had a pool table and a shuffleboard table and a straight-out-of-a-western-movie bar and an authentic dive flavor, and drew its clientele from the more disgruntled downtown office workers and neighborhood derelicts and local biker gangs, and the chili and the burgers were the greasiest in town, and it regularly booked such spectacular rockabilly acts as Sleepy LaBeef and The LeRoi Brothers, and there was this very attractive barmaid who sometimes wore the most provocative attire, and it was quite conveniently located, so we spent enough time there to strike up an acquaintance with the proprietor. We enjoyed his ribald sense of humor, admired the way he kept a watchful eye out for that attractive barmaid in the provocative attire, and we weren’t the least intimidated by his unmistakeable aura of danger.
J.B. wasn’t a big man, and in fact was several inches shorter than ourselves and possessed of a physique that can most charitably described as wiry, and he had a lot of years and even more miles on him, but anyone with a modicum of street smarts would have immediately recognized that he was not someone to be messed with. We hadn’t the slightest desire mess with him, of course, and his far superior street smarts immediately recognized this, and he wasn’t the type to menace such friendly types, and he seemed to enjoy our highfalutin conversations about the latest events, and thus we gradually became friends. Eventually he even asked us to write about his war.
J.B. freely admitted he only went to war because he was drafted, not being the sort of guy who could swing an educational deferment, but once he was dragged in he went full hog. He volunteered for paratrooper and Ranger duty and anything in the worst of it. There was a certain exhilaration in his war stories, but also a horror, and he had a drawer full of snapshots that confirmed the worst accusations about America’s behavior in the war, and first-hand accounts that the enemy had behaved at least as badly, and this rough and rowdy man confirmed to us that war truly is hell. He had stories about his jeered return to civilian life, too, still too young to drink in the bar he would later run, and it was always obvious to us that his war had never ended.
We did our best to write that story for the newspaper where we toiled, and we can’t say it did our career any good. Some readers objected to our sympathetic portrayal of such a rough and rowdy fellow, who had done a little time in prison on a rap involving some fraud scheme or another, and who ran a notorious dive just east of downtown, and who was known as someone not to be trifled with, but we still wonder what sort of men they expect to fight their country’s battles. The story also raised some money for a charity that helped Vietnam veterans by taking them back to their battlefields to find healing, we proudly note, and J.B. was one of those veterans who took the trip. He wound up moving to Vietnam several decades ago and spent most of the rest of his life there.
After a couple of marriages we know of, one of them with a woman we thought quite sound, he wound up marrying a much-younger Vietnamese woman, who was kind enough to send news of his recent illness and ultimate death, and that’s pretty much all we know about the intervening years.
An occasional e-mail or Facebook posting from “Rap” Brown would invite us to join him for a vacation in Vietnam, where he promised all manner of carnal delight and other great deals on the Yankee dollar, but that was about all we heard of him the past couple of decades. He was going by the name of “Rap” Brown at that point, having decided to fully embrace his nom de guerre, but we’ll still think of him as J.B. We rather liked that south side kid who wasn’t to be messed with, and we can’t be sure that he was ever really reconciled with his war, so we choose to remember all the spectacular rockabilly and the fine friendship and the greasy chili and our pal J.B.
— Bud Norman